Once we are diagnosed with a mental illness we have an excuse for everything. Failure is expected, and self-discipline becomes rare. But we can regain a sense of self-discipline in many ways.
A regular meditation practice is one way.
Meditation works as a therapy to increase impulse control. This can really help when mood changes seduce us into bad behavior.
While the results of practice are well-researched, the neurological mechanisms involved are indeterminate.
Something about mindfulness practice actually changes the cortical make-up of the brain. Why this happens is not yet known. It could be the focused attention or the release of self-defeating thoughts. Or, it could be the discipline.
Of the people I teach, the only ones who become serious meditators and see true improvement in their lives are the ones who set aside a regular time each day and commit to practice. For them, it becomes a part of their lives, and soon the day just seems wrong if they do not meditate.
People who don’t establish this discipline quickly fall away from practice and the benefits it can yield. Just as meditation focuses on the relentless return of attention to a point of focus as the mind wanders, it requires the discipline to maintain a practice and to make it a greater part of the meditator’s life.
I believe meditation is an effective adjunct therapy for mental illness.
Inherent in many serious mental illnesses is a lack of impulse control. We often follow the trappings of our minds into dangerous and defeating places. We often act out with reactivity without awareness of the impact of our actions.
We are encouraged in this behavior by a society that makes every want immediately available, whether we’re ready for it or not; whether we can pay for it or not. To introduce self-discipline into the allure of immediate gratification is difficult. We can view it as stunting and boring. Or we can see it as an opportunity to regroup and draw on our greatest strengths to achieve the things we are most capable of.
I began a meditation practice many years ago, and while the stress relief and relaxation benefits appeared almost immediately, the true work of changing my mind took years.
I had to get up early every day and sit and focus my attention on my breath. This is difficult work, for meditation is an exercise in failure. I stayed with the breath and very soon I was off lost in thought, only to catch myself and once again return my attention to my breath. Over and over again. I was always failing to stay focused, always coming back, my mind always off chasing after thoughts again.
In practice, each moment lost is an opportunity to return to the present truth, disregard erroneous thoughts and, one day, develop an impartial awareness of our own mind. Only then can the certainty that we are not our impulses, nor do we have to act on our impulses, be revealed.
This takes great discipline. But then, so do most all accomplishments. I believe the daily practice of the discipline of meditation becomes as important, perhaps even more important, than the development of whatever it is that is defined as mindfulness.
Doing something difficult but beneficial every day will likely yield positive results. Little will come to the person not willing to do the work.
The discipline of meditation is work that is worth it. It can change your life and lead to better mental health as the self-discipline required to practice leads to self-control when moods change and to better decisions when impulses tempt.